Maccabi Haifa 298.88.
(photo credit: AP)
Maccabi Haifa can take a huge step towards qualification for the UEFA Cup round of 32 on Thursday night when it hosts Partizan Belgrade at Bloomfield Stadium.
A win for Haifa will be its second of the group stage and may prove to be sufficient for a top-three finish in the five-team group and a spot in the next stage of the competition.
Also on Thursday, Hapoel Tel Aviv will need to get a positive result in France, where it plays Paris Saint Germain. Hapoel has only managed to collect a single point in its first two matches of the competition and a loss in Paris would likely dash any hopes the side has of reaching the next stage.
Maccabi got an impressive 3-1 win over French side Auxerre in its first home match in the group stage and despite losing 2-0 to Glasgow Rangers at Ibrox three weeks ago, will still be confident of beating the Serbian giant.
Partizan has won the Yugoslav championship 19 times, but has gone six years since its last triumph. Similarly to Haifa, Belgrade has had a poor start to its domestic season and is currently only fourth in the standings, nine points behind city rival Red Star.
Maccabi met the Serbs in the UEFA Cup in the 1996/97 season, losing 1-0 at home and 3-1 on the return leg. However, Partizan's most recent memories of facing an Israeli side are nothing short of traumatic.
Belgrade was knocked out of the UEFA Cup last season by Maccabi Petah Tikva after a stunning 5-2 home defeat to the Israeli club. Since the loss to Petah Tikva, the club has replaced its coach twice and a win on Thursday will go along way to expelling the horrid memories the club has of Israeli soccer.
Belgrade has only played one match in the group stage to date, drawing 1-1 with AS Livorno after Italian 'keeper Marco Amelia scored for his side three minutes into stoppage time.
"We know a lot about our opponent, but more importantly we will enter this match and the other two remaining in the same way we did versus Livorno, with an intention to achieve the maximum," Partizan coach Miodrag Jesic said ahead of Thursday's match. "I'm not saying we are going to win, but we'll surely try to.
"Whatever the result will be, there are still two games to be played. We achieved one objective by qualifying for the group stage and another one is to be in the draw for the next round. It is irrelevant where the points and wins will come from, as long as we stay in Europe."
Jesic will be without first 'keeper Ivica Kralj for a fourth straight game, but the team won its previous three matches without Kralj and is looking for another win against Haifa.
"They shouldn't be underestimated, nor should we overestimate them," midfielder Milan Smiljanic said of Haifa. "Partizan always goes for a win, but a point from this game would also be ok. Maccabi is a great side and they have players capable of winning the match by themselves."
Haifa is sweating about the fitness of one of its most important players, Brazilian midfielder Xavier Dirceo. The 29 year old has a suspected tear in his groin and didn't train with the rest of the team on Wednesday evening.
"A win will give us a considerable advantage in the group," Haifa coach Roni Levy said at the pre-match press conference on Wednesday. "The qualifying situation is complicated, but I'll be happy to worry about that after we win.
"We saw the match against Livorno and they played very well. They were the better side and deserved to win. We have excelled in our European matches so far this season and I hope we do so tomorrow as well. I always come to the match feeling optimistic."
Maccabi will host 350 children from Sderot after club chairman Jacob Shachar sent an open invitation to Mayor Eli Moyal and offered him to send as many kids as he likes to the game.
"We felt an urge to cheer the spirits of the children of Sderot and get them out for a few hours," Maccabi Haifa CEO Itamar Chizik said. "We can't forget the city's terrible state and we wanted to show our support."
An hour after Maccabi's match begins, Tel Aviv will kickoff its game against PSG with the knowledge that it couldn't face the French side in a worst state. PSG has got off to its worst start ever in the French league, losing six times in 14 matches and is in the lowly 14th spot in the standings. The team lost 2-0 to Bordeaux at home over the weekend and left the ground to its fans' jeers.
"If I replaced the coach tomorrow I would be very popular, I would be called a brave man," club president Alain Cayzac said of the pressure he faces to fire his coach Guy Lacombe. "You should only make changes when you are certain that it's the right thing to do and not just for the purpose of saying that you did something."
Tel Aviv defenders will need to contain prolific Portuguese striker Pedro Pauleta, who is also the captain of the side, and left winger Jerome Rothen.
"When we hear our fans criticizing us, it hurts," Rothen said. "We want our fans to be more patient towards us. We need to gain in confidence. Our goal is to advance in the UEFA Cup and that will help us improve in the league. A loss on Thursday will be very problematic. This is a crucial match."
PSG has only played one match in the group stage so far, drawing 0-0 with Rapid Bucharest. Hapoel also drew (2-2) against the Romanians in its last group match, but lost its first game of the group in Greece 2-0 to Panathinaikos.
Tel Aviv coach Yitzhak Schum will be without forward Luciano De Bruno, who was injured in a league match over the weekend, but has otherwise a full squad to pick from.
"I don't want to be the one that helps them out of the crisis," Schum said on Wednesday. "We can't forget that PSG is still one of the biggest clubs in French soccer. Our goal is to leave with points and not just a single point."